July 2017

WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL. J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1971. Cinerama Releasing Corp., US, 1971. Anthony Hopkins (Philip Calvert), Robert Morley (‘Uncle Arthur’), Nathalie Delon, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Derek Bond. Screenplay: Alistair MacLean, based on his own novel. Director: Etienne Périer.

   From what I’ve read about it, this one was produced with the idea of creating a film franchise to compete with the James Bond films. The hero was to be a young and rather fit-looking Anthony Hopkins as a secret agent named Philip Calvert. (The book was his only print edition appearance.)

   But the resulting product turned out so badly, and apparently the box office receipts as well, than any thoughts of further adventures of Hopkins as Calvert disappeared very quickly. The story is confusing, to begin with, and even worse, it’s dull. It’s not clear on a first viewing, but it has something to do with a series of hijackings of cargo ships in the Irish Sea, the most recent one carrying a fortune in gold bullion.

   The trail leads Calvert to the port town of Torbay somewhere along the coast of Scotland, where he snoops around a lot, gets into trouble a lot more, and after the grand finale (with a bit of surprise for anyone still awake), the movie’s over.

   Only the presence of Calvert’s boss, Sir Arthur Arnford-Jones, also known as “Uncle Arthur” (Robert Morley), livens up the proceedings. He’s his usual prim and proper (prissy?) self, humorously so, but he shows he can still do what he needs to do in a pinch.


MARGARET MARON – Shooting at Loons. Deborah Knott #3. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1994; paperback, 1995.

   Maron swept the 1992 mystery awards with Bootlegger’s Daughter, the first in the Judge Deborah Knott series, though it remains to be seen if the second, Southern Discomfort, will win any. For reasons known only to the MWA, it didn’t even make the 1993 Edgar short list. Maron’s earlier stories of policewoman Sigrid Harald were good, but the voice she has found with the Knott books is excellent.

   Deborah Knott, lady Judge, is far from her normal stomping grounds, filling in at coastal Beaufort near North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She’s staying in a cousin’s cottage there, and is quickly involved in the area’s complicated politics when she discovers the murdered body of a local fisherman who headed up an independent fisherman’s association.

   The region is a hotbed of politics, with small island fishers, commercial fishers, environmentalists, and developers at each other’s throats. She’s drawn further into the mess by a local developer’s pressures on the wife of a fellow judge to sell the family’s commercial fishing business.

   I keep waiting for Maron to stub her toe with this series, but she hasn’t done it yet. Once again she has combined background, character, and crime into an excellent story. Deborah Knott is one of the best realized protagonists to grace crime fiction in recent years, and Maron is without superior in her use of locale as a backdrop.

   Her characters are her strength, but almost as refreshing to me is her ability to keep her heroine as the center of the story without resorting to the unrealistic contrivances used by so many other authors, I hate to gush, but I just didn’t find anything at all to dislike here, except that it was too short. Or maybe it wasn’t; I was left wanting more, and maybe that’s how it should be.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

AWARDS UPDATE:   As Barry pointed out, Bootlegger’s Daughter was the Agatha Award Best Novel winner (1992), the Anthony Awards Best Novel winner (1993) a Dilys Awards Best Book nominee (1993), the Edgar Awards Best Novel winner (1993), and the Macavity Awards Best Novel winner (1993). Southern Discomfort was an Agatha Award Best Novel nominee (1993).

  ARNOLD HANO – The Last Notch. Black Gat #12, Stark House Press, paperback, August 2017. First published as by Matthew Gant by Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1958. Reprinted under that byline by Pyramid, #G482, paperback, 1960.

   It was Dan Stumpf who reviewed an earlier western by Arnold Hano on this blog, a book entitled Flint, originally published as by Gil Dodge but reprinted by Stark House as this one is under the author’s real name. In that review Dan also pointed out Hano’s more significant claim to fame, that of being the editor of Lion Books, the near legendary paperback publisher of such hard-boiled/noir authors in the 1950s as Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson and David Goodis.

   The Last Notch isn’t in the same league as the work any of those three, but there are very few whose books come anywhere close. What Notch does have, as you might expect, based only on this small bit of background information, is a strong noirish and fatalistic tone to it, a tale that starts slowly but picks up speed as it goes along.

   In essence The Last Notch is the story of Ben Slattery, perhaps the most notorious gunfighter in the territory, and in all likelihood the best, but in this tale he finds himself in a very strange position indeed. He agrees to do one last killing for hire, one that will pay him $5000, quite a sum of money back then, then hang up his guns and take the governor up on his offer of general amnesty to every gunman who will take him up on it, and many already have.

   If I were to pause for a minute and have think about it, by a nasty twist of fate, who do you think it is he’s been hired to kill? That’s the story in a nutshell, but wait, as they say. There’s more. I won’t go into detail — and in a book of 230 pages of small print, there is a lot of story I’m not able to tell you about in a review of less than 500 words — but as it so happens, Slattery has a nemesis, a shadowy figure who follows him closely throughout the book, a gunslinger known only as The Kid, young but with 19 notches already on the handle of his gun.

   There are plenty of other characters in the story as well, each described in quick but distinctive detail. There are a couple of young women too, both beautiful but one considerably more innocent than the other. It is Slattery’s present and past that make it impossible to think of a life and a future with her, or is it?

   The situation Slattery is in is admittedly an artificial construct, but is is one, I submit, that you can find yourself wrapped up in totally and completely, transported to a time and place that may exist only in the minds of authors with some talent. This is also one of the stories that you cannot predict which way it will go, which is precisely why the former statement is as true as it is.

  CASTLE IN THE DESERT. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Sidney Toler, Arleen Whelan, Richard Derr, Douglass Dumbrille, [Victor] Sen Yung. Based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Harry Lachman.

    A Charlie Chan movie, as you may have guessed, and the last done by 20th Century Fox. It takes place, not surprisingly, in an isolated castle in the desert, 35 miles from civilization. Its owner is a medieval historian who insists on doing his research in authentic surroundings, complete with working dungeon.

    What’s more is that his wife, as it turns out, is a descendant of the notorious Borgia family, and when guests begin mysteriously dying, Charlie is brought in. Lots of mysterious events also then begin to happen, but none of them of a substantial sort. Still, this film does contain one of my favorite sayings, even though Charlie himself didn’t come up wth it. Blame this one on his Number Two son:

    “Man who sit on tack better off.”

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24,, August 1990. (very slightly revised).

Note:   Dan Stumpf has also reviewed the film on this blog. Check out his comments here.

Three 1001 MIDNIGHTS Reviews
by Bill Pronzini

FREDRIC BROWN – The Fabulous Clipjoint. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1947. Bantam #1134, paperback, 1953. David R. Godine, trade paperback, 1986.

   Fredric Brown’s vision of the world was paradoxical and slightly cockeyed. Things, in his eye, are not always what you might think they are; elements of the bizarre spice the commonplace, and, conversely, elements of the commonplace leaven the bizarre. Madness and sanity are intertwined, so that it is often difficult to tell which is which.

   The same is true of malevolence and benignity, of tragedy and comedy. Brown seems to have felt that the forces, cosmic or otherwise, that control our lives are at best mischievous and at worst malign, that man has little to say about his own destiny, and that free will is a fallacy. The joke is on us, he seems to be saying on numerous occasions. And it is a joke that all too frequently turns nasty.

   Brown employed a deceptively simple, offhand style that allows his fiction to be enjoyed by those interested only in entertainment and also pondered by those interested in the complex themes at its heart. The Fabulous Clipjoint, his first novel and the recipient of an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, is a good example.

   On the one hand, it is a straightforward detective story that introduced the Chicago-based team of private eyes Ed and Am Hunter. Ed, the narrator, is young and idealistic; Ambrose, his uncle and a retired circus performer, is much more pragmatic and somewhat jaded- the voice of experience.

   When Ed’s father, Wally, is shot down in a dark alley, Ed enlists his uncle’s help and sets out to find the murderer. Their quest leads them into the seamy underbelly of 1940s society, the world of second-rate criminals, cheap bars, sleazy carnival folk; from a sideshow spieler named Hoagy to a beautiful tramp named Claire Raymond to assorted thugs and tough cops, and finally to a killer.

   On the other hand, there are deeper meanings to the narrative — underlying themes of obsession, a young man’s bitter and tragic coming of age, and the manipulation of those dark cosmic forces that Brown believed are in control of our fives. The handling of these themes is what makes the novel so grimly powerful. Not Brown’s best book, and not for every taste, but unquestionably much more than just another hard-boiled detective tale.

   Brown wrote six other Ed and Am Hunter books, none of which, unfortunately,approaches The Fabulous Clipjoint in quality. Among them are The Dead Ringer (1948); The Bloody Moonlight (1949, which has a werewolf theme); Compliments of a Fiend (1951); and Mrs. Murphy’s Underpants (1963).

FREDRIC BROWN – Knock Three-One-Two. Dutton, 1959. Bantam A2135, paperback, 1960. TV adaptation: “Knock Three-One-Two.” Thriller, 13 December 1960 (Season 1, Episode 13). Film: The Red Ibis (France, 1975; original title: L’Ibis rouge).

   Knock Three-One-Two has one of the most compelling (and chilling) opening lines in all of crime fiction: “He had a name, but it doesn’t matter: call him the psycho.” It is the best of Brown’s later novels, and one of his two or three best overall. It is also — in theme, mood, and final message — his most frightening work.

   On the surface, Knock is a straightforward mystery that interweaves the lives of a maniacal rapist/strangler who preys on women alone at night in their apartments; a liquor salesman named Ray Fleck who is addicted to gambling; a Greek restaurateur, George Mikos, who is in love with Fleck’s wife, Ruth; a mentally retarded news vendor named Benny; Dolly Mason, a promiscuous and mercenary beauty operator; and several other characters.

   But as the opening lines intimate, this is not a whodunit: The identity of the psycho is irrelevant to the plot; rather, he is a catalyst, an almost biblical symbol of evil. The suspense Brown creates and sustains here is of the dark and powerful sort perfected
by Cornell Woolrich, yet uniquely Brown’s own in style and handling. It all builds beautifully, inexorably, to a shocking and ironic climax- Brown at his most controlled, dealing with material at its most chaotic.

   Equally good are Brown’s two other major suspense novels, The Screaming Mimi (1949) and The Far Cry (1951). Mimi is the story of an alcoholic Chicago reporter named Sweeney and his search for both a beautiful woman and a Ripper-style killer; it is also an allegorical retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The Far Cry, set in New Mexico, has been called Brown’s tour de force — a fair judgment, for the treatment of its theme of a love/hate obsession is uncommon and its denouement is both horrific and surprisingly bleak for its time.

FREDRIC BROWN – Mostly Murder. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1953. Pennant P-59, paperback, 1954.

   Brown wrote excellent short fiction, including dozens of mordant short-shorts — a demanding form at which he proved himself a master. It can be argued, in fact, that except in a half-dozen or so cases, he was a better short-story writer than he was a novelist.

    Mostly Murder, his first collection, contains eighteen of his best early stories., from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and such pulps as Black Mask and Dime Mystery.

   Among them are his masterpiece of psychological horror “Don’t Look Behind You,” a tour de force in which the reader is the intended murder victim; an unusually dark and powerful treatment of the “impossible crime” theme, “The Laughing Butcher”; an ironic little chiller, “Little Apple Hard to Peel”; a Woolrichian tale of terror and suspense, “I’ll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen”; the wryly humorous “Greatest Poem Ever Written”; and two of his best short-shorts. “Town Wanted” and “Cry Silence.” An outstanding collection.

   A second gathering of Brown’s criminous stories, The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders (1963), is likewise first-rate. Also well worth reading are several recent collections: Homicide Sanitarium (1984), Before She Kills (1984), Madman’s Holiday (1985), and The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches (1985), all limited editions of obscure but entertaining pulp stories; and Carnival of Crime (1985), which contains some but not all of his short mysteries, including several from Mostly Murder, and a complete checklist of Brown’s published works.

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

William F. Deeck

A. A. THOMSON & FALKLAND L. CARY – Murder at the Ministry. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1947. Published earlier as a play (French, 1942). No US edition.

   Clarendon House had once been a mental home, and to some it still appears that way because it now is inhabited by civil servants and scientists working on a top-secret project. The project’s leader, Sir James Reid, receives an anonymous note accusing his wife and fellow scientist Peter Faber of hanky-panky. He confronts the two and shortly thereafter is shot dead.

   There are several suspects besides Sir James’s wife and Faber. There is Captain Knowles-Parker, who is brighter than he appears to be, Lydia Grant, Sir James’s secretary, and Mr. Noote, the nearly perfect bureaucrat.

   Since Faber has the best, if not the only, motive, attention is focused on him. But Sir James’s doctor provides Faber with an alibi.

   Inspector Richardson of Scotland Yard is baffled. Captain Knowles-Parker, who helps in the investigation, is equally bewildered. Only through some hints that Mrs. McIntyre, one of Clarendon House’s charwomen, gives out when she has a mind to, is the villain brought to justice. How anyone understands her Scots accent, however, is beyond me. One can read what she has to say two or three times and extract the meaning, but hearing it once and grasping what she has said strikes me as bordering on the miraculous.

   Like Mrs. McIntyre, I spotted the murderer, although for slightly different reasons. I couldn’t figure out the motive, though, and don’t accept it now that I know it.

   Mrs. McIntyre is a forerunner to H.R.F. Keating’s Mrs. Craggs, though I think she drinks a bit more and certainly more steadily . She is well worth discovering.

— Reprinted from CADS 13, February 1990. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.

Bibliographic Notes:   The two authors collaborated on one other mystery novel, that being But Once a Year (Jenkins, 1951). Murder at the Ministry seems to have been Mrs. McIntyre’s only outing. Falkland Cary’s solo work in terms of crime fiction otherwise consisted only of plays. A. A. Thomson’s contributions to the field include no other novels, but he does have one published play to his credit as well as several short story collections, some of which are criminous.


TO PLEASE A LADY. MGM, 1950. Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Will Geer, Roland Winters, Frank Jenks. Director: Clarence Brown.

   The two lead characters were bound to clash. Clark Gable portrays Mike Brannan, an amoral racecar driver who will do anything to win. Barbara Stanwyck appears as Regina Forbes, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist who isn’t afraid to use the written word to make and break men.

   When they first meet at the racetrack, it’s natural that there’s going to be some tension between these two strong personalities, and before you know it, “tension” is an understatement. When Regina lays into Brannan in one of her columns, all but accusing him of negligently murdering a fellow racecar driver during a particularly aggressive race, that all but ends Brannan’s career. Somehow, though, Regina can’t keep her mind off the man whose career she ruined, and thus begins an unlikely love-hate relationship between the two. No explanation is given, of course. The plot goes where it has to.

   Putting aside the plot for a moment, the most important thing to know about To Please a Lady is that it has immense star power. The names Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck on the marquee were sure to fill the seats. Unfortunately, aside from the screen presence of these two Hollywood giants, this rather formulaic romantic drama really doesn’t have all that much to offer.

   Sure, the movie hits all the proverbial beats that one would expect in such a film: initial hatred between the two leads, tension, falling in love, falling out of love, tension, conflict, and ultimate reconciliation and permanent love. Unfortunately, these plot turns are as dizzyingly predictable as the final race scene filmed in Indianapolis, all of which makes this movie about speed a rather turgid affair.


JONATHAN LETHEM – Gun, with Occasional Music.Harcourt Brace & Co., hardcover, 1994. Tor, paperback, 1995.

   Lethem was “born in the 60s, watched TV in the 70s, and started writing in the 80s.” This is his first novel, he’s at work on a second, and that’s all we know.

   Conrad Metcalf in a Private Inquisitor, which is the futuristic equivalent of a PI. (“PQ” doesn’t quite have the same ring to ot, somehow.) An ex-client of his is murdered, and the man the Inquisitors suspect of killing him comes to Metcalf protesting his innocence, and asking for help.

   Metcalf turns him down, but then for quixotic reasons of his own decides to become involved. This is sort of a PI story, after all. Problem is, nobody wants him poking around — not the dead man’s wife, not an enigmatic gangster, and most of all not the Inquisitors. It’s a brave new world, and it such creatures in it.

   This is a mystery/science fiction hybrid that won’t satisfy either camp. For SF fans there’s a potentially interesting culture set an unspecified number of years in the future, but there’s no background or rationale for it at all — it just is.

   For PI fans, Metcalf is almost a stereotypical mean streets kin of guy, but the futuristic trappings — evolved animals, a taboo against questions, musical news, “babyheads,” Karma cards (a debit balance means the freezer), and more — only prove distracting.

   Lethem is a moderately good writer in terms of prose and pacing, though there’s not a great deal of characterization aside from Metcalf himself. I was able to get through the book with some enjoyment (though not a great deal) because I’m an ardent fan of both hardboiled PI’s and science fiction. I can’t imagine any other kind of reader liking this much at all.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #13, June 1994.

Editorial Update:   This book received more acclaim from SF fans than Barry expected. It was ranked Number One in that year’s Locus poll for Best First Novel, was nominated for a Nebula, and had considerable support for a Hugo. I don’t recall mystery fans taking much if any notice of it, but I may be wrong about that. If you’re interested in learning more about Lethem’s career, you can do no better than to check out his entry in the online SF Encyclopedia.


ELLEN DATLOW, Editor – Blood Is Not Enough: 17 Stories of Vampirism. William Morrow, hardcover, 1989. Cover by Don Maitz. Berkley, paperback, July 1990; Ace, paperback, October 1994.

   A collection of vampire stories. I think the older stories (Leonid Andeyev’s “Lazarus” and Fritz Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”) are more memorable than the new ones. However, I read everything, and there’s not a real dud in the lot.

   These are mostly untraditional treatments of the vampire, as one might expect from writers as varied as Harlan Ellison and Gahan Wilson. I especially liked Scott Baker’s “Varicose Worms” and “Down Among the Dead Men” by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann, a Holocaust story.


Carrion Comfort • (1983) • novelette by Dan Simmons
The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be • (1967) • short story by Gahan Wilson
The Silver Collar • (1989) • short story by Garry Kilworth
Try a Dull Knife • (1968) • short story by Harlan Ellison
Varicose Worms • novelette by Scott Baker
Lazarus • (1921) • short story by Leonid Andreyev
L’Chaim! • (1989) • short story by Harvey Jacobs
Return of the Dust Vampires • (1985) • short story by Sharon N. Farber
Good Kids • (1989) • short story by Edward Bryant
The Girl with the Hungry Eyes • (1949) • short story by Fritz Leiber
The Janfia Tree • (1989) • short story by Tanith Lee
A Child of Darkness • (1989) • short story by Susan Casper
Nocturne • (1989) • poem by Steve Rasnic Tem
Down Among the Dead Men • (1982) • novelette by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann
… To Feel Another’s Woe • (1989) • short story by Chet Williamson
Time Lapse • (1989) • poem by Joe Haldeman
Dirty Work • (1989) • novelette by Pat Cadigan

MARION BRAMHALL – Murder Is Contagious. Kit Acton #5. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1949. Unicorn Mystery Book Club, hardcover, 4-in-1 edition. No paperback edition.

   Life on the college campus was different after World War II both as it was before the war and as it is now. Veterans were coming home and going to school. They were often older, married, and they had kids. They also lived in makeshift housing. Quonset huts.

   And if one kid got the measles, there was an epidemic. What Kit Acton and her professor husband Dick also face is a pair of murders, born of love and hatred and the cramped housing conditions. Reading this book 40 years later, you know what this reflects, more than anything else, is an era of the past that will never appear in any high school history class.

   According to Hubin, this was the last of five mysteries written by Marion Branhall, all starring Kit (Marsden) Acton. He doesn’t mention husband Dick. I assume that Marsden was her maiden name, and that they met and got married sometime earlier in the series.

   Dick is the detective in the family, however. Issuing a small PLOT WARNING notice at this point, he discovers who the killer is long before Kit, but he doesn’t tell her (or the reader) until after the climactic finale, during which Kit has interestingly made the clues fit another suspect altogether.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #23,, July 1990. (shortened and slightly revised).

[UPDATE.]   At the end of this review, I made some comments about the author, now deleted, not knowing much about her, I wondered if she might possibly be male, thinking that the name Marion is often masculine. On the other hand, “it’s Kit who tells the story, and it sure doesn’t sound like a man who’s putting words in her mouth.”

   I can now report that, as Al Hubin says in the latest CFIV, that Marion Bramhall (1904-1983) was indeed female, and in fact was the daughter of a minister and lived in Massachusetts.

      The Kit (Marsden) Acton series —

Murder Solves a Problem. Doubleday, 1944
Button, Button. Doubleday, 1944
Tragedy in Blue. Doubleday, 1945
Murder Is an Evil Business. Doubleday, 1948
Murder Is Contagious. Doubleday, 1949

Note:   A Kirkus review of Tragedy in Blue suggests the correct order of the first two books, both published in 1944, is as above. There is no mention of husband Dick in the review. Kit Acton’s partner in solving this third case is instead Lt. Gifford, apparently a Massachusetts state trooper In fact, the review calls it “[a]nother Kit Acton-Lieutenant Gifford story…”

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